One week left, lots of questions to answer.
And plenty of certainty in the NFL, too.
First, to the seemingly sure things, start with the AFC. Does anyone really believe the conference title game won’t be at Gillette Stadium? Or that the Patriots won’t be hosting the Steelers?
The separation in the AFC is as stark as the wide-openness of the NFC. Barring a collapse or more major injuries – Pittsburgh already is minus the league’s best receiver, and perhaps the NFL’s best player, Antonio Brown, who’s due back for the postseason – New England will go after its sixth Lombardi Trophy or Pittsburgh will try for its seventh.
Kansas City could be pesky, but that’s about it. Jacksonville, despite its sensational turnaround, appears a year away from true championship status. Baltimore’s defense can scare opponents, while its offense only scares Ravens fans.
Buffalo? Nice to see you after nearly two decades out of the playoffs, if you get there. The Chargers can do some dynamic things, but not nearly enough to be a threat.
One more certainty: Cleveland’s headed for 0-16 ignominy, joining the 2008 Lions. That the Browns also lost 15 games last season undoubtedly stamps them as one of the worst teams in sports history.
Of course, there always are some puzzlements in sports, and the AFC has these:
– Will Hue Jackson really survive as Browns coach, even after owner Jimmy Haslam said he would be staying? New GM John Dorsey might have a say in that.
”I’m not going to change,” Jackson said Sunday. ”I’m going to be very consistent with this group. I have their total trust, they have mine. We just have to do some things better.”
Some things? How about everything?
– Will Chuck Pagano keep his coaching gig in Indianapolis after such a disappointing season punctuated by the fiasco of Andrew Luck’s injury rehab?
– Is Marvin Lewis leaving Cincinnati, where, despite Sunday’s win, the team has been more Bungles than Bengals?
– Does Todd Bowles get the contract extension he deserves with the talent-poor Jets?
Tune in when the calendar turns to 2018.
On the field, the NFC is far more intriguing. It’s hard to argue that any of the six teams who get into the playoffs – the Eagles, Vikings , Rams , Saints and Panthers have qualified, with the Falcons or Seahawks getting the other berth – isn’t capable of a long run. Injury-ravaged Seattle’s solid performance Sunday in eliminating the Cowboys makes that obvious, and the Falcons have some recent pedigree, even though they haven’t played up to the standard that got them so close to grabbing the Lombardi last February.
”In these situations where it truly is a must-win game, we don’t have to make anything up,” receiver Doug Baldwin said. ”We’re well-prepared for it. The process that we’ve gone through the whole season really helped us today.”
Who is the favorite in the conference? Had Carson Wentz remained healthy, Philadelphia would have that role. While the Eagles are the leader for home-field advantage, the other four qualifiers won’t fear them – or anyone else – in the postseason.
Well, until they have to face the formidable AFC champ, New England or Pittsburgh.
There are coaching complexities in the NFC, too.
– Who gets the job with the Giants, where it’s unlikely Steve Spagnuolo is given a shot with nothing much changing on the scoreboard under his interim leadership?
– Is Kirk Cousins playing his final game as Redskins quarterback on Sunday, at the Giants, before striking it even more rich elsewhere?
– Do John Fox in Chicago, Dirk Koetter in Tampa Bay and Jim Caldwell in Detroit remain as coaches?
– Can Todd Gurley’s late surge – he’s actually been spectacular for most of the season – get him a league MVP award? Could Wentz, despite missing the month, still walk off with it?
– Will the Vikings be the first team to play in a Super Bowl they are hosting in their stadium?
Maybe of most interest, given the uproar over officiating this season, is how calls will affect the 12 teams who take to the road to the Super Bowl on Jan. 1? If you think the controversies of the last four months were wild, just wait.
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